As much as I loath superlatives, there’s just no getting around the fact that the Monterey Bay/Big Sur region of California is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful places on earth.
Monterey is a pretty seaside community with beautiful ocean vistas, historic architecture, stately Victorians, and a number of quality lodgings and restaurants.
More important, Monterey is only a short drive from Pacific Grove, Carmel, Pebble Beach, and Big Sur, and the lodgings here are far less expensive, which makes it a great place to set up base while exploring Monterey Bay and Big Sur.
1. Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey
If you’ve never been to the Monterey Bay Aquarium you simply must go. Ranked one of the nation’s top family attractions, it’s the Disneyland of aquariums, housing one of finest collections of sea creatures on the planet. It’s like strolling through an aquatic dream where more than 350,000 marine animals and plants coexist in a magical setting.
The highlight of the aquarium is a three-story, 335,000-gallon tank with clear acrylic walls offering stunning views of leopard sharks, sardines, anchovies, and other creatures—all swimming together through a towering kelp forest.
The 1.2-million-gallon Outer Bay tank houses open-ocean life, including yellowfin tuna, large green sea turtles, sharks, giant ocean sunfish, and schools of bonito. And everyone falls in love with the adorable sea otters playing in their two-story exhibit. Tip: Avoid lines at the gate by ordering tickets by calling 800/756-3737 in advance.
2. Riding Bikes along the Monterey Bay Coastal Trails
On a sunny day in Monterey there’s no better way to explore than on a bicycle, enjoying beautiful views of Monterey Bay and the sea lions and sea otters in their natural environment. The paved waterfront Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail stretches 29 miles, from Castroville in the north to Pacific Grove in the south, but most people just tool around Monterey and Pacific Grove, smiling the whole way.
This popular paved path hugs the coast, following the same route as the old Southern Pacific Railway. The Coastal Trail is also great way for families to reach the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Cannery Row, and Fisherman’s Wharf, avoiding busy roads along the way.
There are several places to stop and get a bite to eat on the trail, or you can pack a picnic and spread a blanket out on one of the trail’s many grassy areas. And if you need to rent a bicycle, I recommend Adventures by the Sea in Cannery Row.
3. The Elkhorn Slough Safari Tour at Moss Landing
I’ve actually received letters from readers about how much fun they had on this trip. Just north of Monterey on Highway 1 is Moss Landing, home of Captain Yohn Gideon’s Elkhorn Slough Safari. Friendly Cap’n Gideon loads guests onto his 27-foot pontoon boat, then embarks on a 2-hour journey of the Elkhorn Slough Wildlife Reserve.
It’s not uncommon to see a raft of up to 50 otters sunning themselves, as well as harbor seals and hundreds of species of waterfowl and migratory shorebirds. An onboard naturalist answers questions, while Cap’n Gideon educates on the surroundings and hands out binoculars. 831/633-5555
4. Hiking Pinnacles National Monument
The 24,000-acre Pinnacles National Monument is one of the Bay Area’s best weekend hiking destinations, and I’m betting you never even heard of it. Located southeast of Salinas, Pinnacles consists of hundreds of towering crags, spires, ramparts, and hoodoos—the eroded remains of a volcano formed 23 million years ago. Pinnacles is also haven for bird-watchers, home to six endangered California condors and one of California’s largest breeding populations of raptors (bring binoculars). You could spend days here, but it’s possible to cover the most interesting features in a weekend. Great camping as well. 831/389-4485
Our Favorite Monterey Hotel: The Casa Munras Garden Hotel and Spa
Our favorite hotel in Monterey—and by far the best value—is the Casa Munas Garden Hotel and Spa, which was built around the original hacienda of Don Esteban Munras, the last Spanish ambassador to California. Accommodations are scattered among 11 one- and two-story buildings along the 4 1/2-acre landscaped property.
The Casa Munras was one of the first residences built outside the walls of the old Monterey Presidio. Constructed in 1824 by Spanish diplomat Don Estéban Munras, the property was initially named La Granja (Spanish for ‘the farm’) and soon became the heart of his sprawling Rancho San Vicente, a veritable principality of 20,000 acres stretching all the way to Carmel.
The original residence was constructed with individual handmade adobe bricks. These historical roots have been protected and maintained; a portion of the original structure featuring the 32-inch thick adobe walls is still standing. You will love this beautiful and historical hotel (especially the spa).
5. 17-Mile Drive at Pebble Beach
They say it’s one of those things every Californian must do at least once in his or her life—cruise 17-Mile Drive at Pebble Beach. Five entrances, manned by spiffy security guards adept at making change (the entrance fee is $9.25), lead into this fabled enclave that serves as home and playground of the absurdly wealthy.
Though it can be whizzed through in about 30 minutes, two to three hours is about the average touring time. The toll fee includes a map and guide, but all that’s required to stay on course is to follow the dotted red line painted on the road.
Among its many “points of interest,” the most entertaining is Bird Rock, a small offshore isle covered with hundreds of seals and sea lions (bring binoculars). On your way out, celebrate your outing with a $15 top-shelf margarita at The Inn at Spanish Bay’s Terrace Lounge while pretending you can afford to stay here.
6. Kayaking Adventures on Monterey Bay
Even if you’ve never paddled a boat in your life, just about anyone will have an amazing adventure paddling around the placid Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary on stable sit-on-top kayaks. You don’t need a tour guide—just rent some sea kayaks in downtown Monterey and paddle out to the kelp forests along Cannery Row.
You’ll be amazed at how much wildlife surrounds you: harbor seals swimming next to you, sea lions lounging on the rocky shore, diving pelicans, and adorable sea otters playing in the kelp.
Numerous places in Monterey rent kayaks; I recommend Adventures by the Sea in Cannery Row. They always have the friendliest staff and best rate.
7. Point Sur Lighthouse Tours, Big Sur
About 13 miles south from Carmel on Highway 1 you’ll see the Point Sur Lighthouse off in the distance, perched 361 feet above the surf atop Point Sur, a volcanic rock promontory just south of Bixby Bridge (and the perfect lookout point for spotting migrating gray whales).
It was built in 1889, when only a horse trail provided access to this part of the world. Tours, which take 2 to 3 hours and involve a steep half-mile hike each way, are scheduled on Saturdays, Sundays, and Wednesdays in the winter months. Moonlight tours are offered as well; check the website for specific dates. 831/625-4419
8. Whale Watching
The placid waters of Monterey Bay offer fantastic whale watching opportunities (I’ve spotted whales while lounging on a hotel’s rooftop hot tub), but you’ll have much better odds of spotting them during a whale watching cruise with Monterey Whale Watching (831/372-2203), which runs daily trips on the Princess Monterey and Pacific Explorer.
9. Stolling Around Butterfly Town, USA (a.k.a Pacific Grove)
Some compare the 2.5-square-mile town of Pacific Grove to Carmel as it was 20 years ago. Plenty of tourists wind their way through here, but the town always remains quaint and peaceful—amazing considering that Monterey is a stone’s throw away.
While Monterey is comparatively congested and cosmopolitan, Pacific Grove is sprinkled with Victorian homes, flowers, butterflies fluttering about (really), and deer meandering fearlessly from yard to yard.
Pacific Grove is best strolled, so park the car and spend the day meandering around George Washington Park and the waterfront around the point. Or better yet, rent bikes and take an uber-romantic ride along Pacific Grove’s Ocean View Boulevard.
Pacific Grove is called “Butterfly Town, USA” for a reason. From October through early March, thousands upon thousands of monarch butterflies migrate here, traveling from as far away as Alaska.
It’s a fascinating natural phenomenon: To get here, the delicate little guys travel as far as 2,000 miles, covering 100 miles a day at an altitude of 10,000 feet. Many settle in Pacific Grove’s Monarch Grove sanctuary, a eucalyptus stand on Grove Acre Avenue off Lighthouse Avenue, as well as the “butterfly trees” at George Washington Park (Pine Avenue and Alder streets). It’s a sight you’ll never forget.
10. Lunch at Post Ranch Inn, Big Sur
I’ve been reviewing hotels for 20 years and I still haven’t stayed anywhere that came close to the Post Ranch Inn experience. Perched on 98 acres of seaside ridges high above the Pacific Ocean, it’s one of the most beautiful hotel settings in the world. There simply aren’t words in the English language to properly describe that ocean view.
If you can afford to stay here, adopt me. If you can’t, you need to check it out anyway, and having lunch at the resort’s cliff-side Sierra Mar restaurant is a great excuse to wallow in romantic splendor of Post Ranch Inn (you don’t need to be a guest of the hotel). Try to make a dining reservation in advance, but either way you have to see this view. You have no idea how happy you can make someone simply by making a lunch reservation for two at the Post Ranch Inn.